Q: Your family history inspired Beneath the Wide Silk Sky--at what point did you decide to write the novel, and how did you create your character Sam Sakamoto?
A: I found out that my grandparents had been incarcerated when I was in third grade. That shocked me, as I imagine it might shock most children.
The next year, in fourth grade, I remember seeing a little box in my history textbook about what they called the “relocation.” But my teacher skipped it. That bothered me. I think even back then, I felt a need to witness that this thing had happened--and that it was wrong.
That thought came back to nudge me several times--in my undergraduate years, then as a MFA student. But it was only after I became a mom, and I began feeling so strongly about the world we're leaving the next generation, that I got myself into gear and finished the book.
One of the first things I had to decide about Sam Sakamoto was her age. She's 16 years old. I'm a teacher, and I think young adults are often so much more interesting than adults!
And a Japanese American teenage girl during the 1940s--well, there's just so much inherent conflict in being that gender, that age, and that ethnicity during that time. It gave me the chance to explore questions about gender roles, prejudice, and identity that I found relevant and interesting.
Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I started first with interviews with my own family members. I also had my grandfather's journals. And then I read and listened to a lot of other first-hand accounts and tracked down primary documents, especially photographs like those taken by Dorothea Lange for the War Relocation Authority.
When I first began my research, I assumed, like a lot of people, that Pearl Harbor marked the moment when people began to fear and dislike the Japanese. But one of the first things I learned was that prejudice had existed long before Pearl Harbor.
Going back to the early 1900s, groups had agitated for bans on Japanese immigration, on Japanese ever becoming citizens, and on Japanese owning land. There were social and political organizations called things like the "Anti-Asiatic League" and politicians that ran entire campaigns on their promises to drive Japanese from the area.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, it gave those who hated the Japanese the excuse they needed. There is pretty good documentation that key authorities knew Japanese Americans were not a threat. But they bowed to hysteria and public pressure, and a lot of that pressure was from those who benefitted economically from the removal of Japanese Americans.
That was something I hadn't understood before I started this project.
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Huey imbues Sam’s narration with familiarity, creating an urgent immediacy that guides this insightful story...” What do you think of that description, and how did you create Sam's voice?
A: I'm of course grateful for the very kind review. The description is the kind of thing I look for in books as a reader, so I was very happy that someone saw that in my story.
In terms of how I found Sam's voice, I use a slimmed down version of Method Acting to create my characters, and that's how I find their voices as well.
So it's a deep dive into their history and their internal beliefs, all kind of wrapped up in a physicality that may be hard to see on the page but that defines their energy, their choices, and their voices.
For me, Sam's character comes down to a tension between this self-doubting question of "do I have a right to take up space in this world?" and a conflicting belief that one has an obligation to fight against injustice. The tension between those two warring ideas is at the core of her arc.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I think I was on a walk, staring at some clouds and thinking about the book, when the phrase came to me.
I had read these heart-breaking accounts of Japanese women in Seattle burning their silk kimono to seem more American, which turned out to be futile. And Sam's mother, who has passed before the book begins, is metaphorically connected to both the sky and silk... So in a way it's about Sam's connection to her mother.
But also, I wrote the book after I lost my grandparents and father. They were incarcerated, and I was writing a story that witnessed that experience. So for me the title is somehow related to that sense of keeping our loved ones with us. It probably goes without saying, but that was part of my motivation for writing this book as well.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on another YA historical novel. It's set in the time just after WWII. For me, it's an ambitious project, stretching my skills and requiring quite a bit of research. But it's fun! And I'm also trying my hand at a nonfiction picture book.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I've got more information about the book and its inspirations on my website, emilyhuey.com. And if you have questions or are interested in a school or book club visit, you can find my contact info there as well. Thank you so much for having me!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb